Call it the Do-Over Ballot

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Label the coming election on ballot measures the Do-Over Ballot. Many of the propositions headed for the November ballot are intended to re-do previous actions taken by voters and/or legislators. 

Removing some property tax limits, changing other property tax rules, undoing a ban on affirmative action, toughening criminal penalties—all these ballot measures are intended to undo what California voters did with initiative measures in the past.

There are also attempts to undo legislative actions. There is a referendum to turn over the law passed by the legislature to eliminate cash bail. There is an initiative to separate app-linked drivers that work with companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash from the new labor mandates of AB 5, the worker classification law. There is a measure to supplant rent control limitations set by the legislature with a broader rent control law.

The California ballot is giving current voters a chance to reconsider what was codified in the past and rewrite the law.

However, just because voters can make changes does not mean they will or they should. The wisdom on certain issues expressed by voters in the past can stand the test of time. 

With the direct democracy system in California, issues presented to the voters does not necessarily mean that there is a groundswell of support to change a law or create a law. Many times, the issues are presented to the voters from a special interest perspective. Those who have an interest to change the law can muster enough support—and money—to qualify a measure for the ballot. But it is a large leap from qualification to approval by voters. Maybe that’s why historically only about one-third of all initiatives that make the California ballot pass.

Likewise, legislative actions accomplished within the cozy confines of the capitol building may or may not find broader approval when voters have a chance to speak on the matters through the ballot box.

Highlighting the ballot issues in November that reflect decisions made by voters in the “old days”—defined as more than 20 years ago—are the changes to Proposition 13, other property tax laws and reversing judgment on affirmative action.

Proposition 13 passed in a landslide 42 years ago to place limitations on property taxes. Since California has a unified property tax on all properties since statehood, the limitations covered both residential and commercial property. At the time Prop 13 appeared on the ballot, a split roll was also offered to voters that would apply different tax assessment criteria to residential and commercial property. The voters rejected that proposal. Now comes the latest attempt to split the tax roll with a $12 billion tax increase on business property.

In addition, Proposition of 58 of 1986 and Proposition 193 of 1996, which granted transfer of property between parents and children and grandparents and children without raising property taxes, would be altered by a legislative proposal that carries other provisions, including efforts to help with wildfires. (The legislative proposal was a compromise to replace an initiative that had already qualified for the ballot.)

Repeal of affirmative action occurred in 1996, with 54.5% of the voters supporting Proposition 209. With the question of unequal treatment of Blacks the burning issue of the day, a supermajority in the legislature decided it was time to repeal Proposition 209 and placed a repeal measure on the ballot.

The legislature’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins bill placed limits on local rent control. An initiative similar to one voters defeated in 2018 has qualified for the ballot to give local governments power to ignore the legislature’s Costa-Hawkins limitations.

Over twenty-plus years after these laws came into being, activists and legislators looking at the changed political landscape think the time is right to present alternatives to voters.

But not all measures in the Do-Over ballot want to change laws that go back decades. Other efforts of a Do-Over are of more recent vintage.

A ballot measure to change reforms brought by 2014’s Proposition 47, which recategorized some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies has been criticized by the law enforcement community. An initiative statute has qualified for the ballot to reestablish some criminal activities as felonies. Given the debate over treatment of minorities within the justice system, this measure will also share the attention of change in the current political environment.

Both the cash bail restriction and the worker classification bill faced heated opposition in the legislature and once they became law, the opposition switched to the ballot front, as is a custom in California, to undo them either in whole or in part.

A referendum froze the bail law from being implemented until the voters pass judgment in November. The worker classification law, AB 5, is on the books but the piece of it that affects the app-driver industry is being challenged by the companies directly affected. The initiative proponents would declare the drivers are independent contractors and are not covered by the law. Ironically, AB 5 was created chiefly with the app-driver workers in mind.

In a democracy, voters’ attitudes can be tested anew. In some cases, many voters would be new to the issue at hand and see it through modern-day sensibilities. Yet, the judgments of preceding generations won’t be easily cast aside.

There will be additional ballot propositions in November to consider but the voters of 2020 have the chance to re-do a number of policy issues in the state that were created previously. We’ll see if they think it’s time for a Do-Over.

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